This September there’s something peculiar on show in Stornoway’s Art Centre, An Lanntair.
For those unfamiliar with the traditional fuel of the outlying islands of Scotland, let me explain. A peat is a ‘square’ of fuel cut from the moorland of the Western Isles. In the past, peat was “harvested… cut, lifted, dried, shifted, collected and eventually stacked, often with superb craftsmanship and precision.”
The peatstack in question was built by Dr. Alasdair MacLeod, and sits as the centre piece of the current An Lanntair exhibition, 15 feet long and eight feet high. There is a vintage tractor in one corner, and local historical society prints from days at the peats along the walls.
Little over a decade ago there was a peatstack standing proudly outside every home in the Outer Hebrides; today they are few and far between.
Peatstacks are now so rare that the sight of one inside – in an art gallery, of all places – is not only surprising, but strangely heart-warming. Peat cutting was central to the Hebridean culture for centuries, a tradition that only began to evaporate relatively recently, when my age could still be counted in single figures.
I can remember running around in red wellies with my brother out on the moor, while my father cut into the peat banks; the laughter on the tractor trailer that everyone sat on for the trip out to collect the peats; and the picnics – the mounds of cakes and sandwiches and pancakes – that fueled everyone for an afternoon’s work.
For older generations, who spent nearly every summer of their lives taking part in the process of bringing home the peats, the memories stirred by the sights in An Lanntair must be even more emotional.
An Lanntair are certainly playing with expectations.
“It is slightly provocative but it is certainly more than a joke,” says the art centre’s Director Roddy Murray on the gallery’s website. “It emphasises the point that putting objects within the context of a gallery changes and challenges the way we look at them. We evaluate and scrutinise things in a different way and to different standards.”
Adorning another wall of the gallery is an impressive Gaelic glossary of words connected to the peat-cutting tradition.
Some of the terms bring back flashbulb memories long forgotten: my Granny saying we needed some caorans for the fire in the living room, or another grown-up talking of the smur at the bottom of the peat bucket. Complied by artist and archaeologist Anne Campbell, it is testament to the role of language as key to a culture.
In a time when most homes rely on central heating, this piece of peatstack art provides “a memorial to a way of life, when entire summers were dedicated to cutting peats and mutually helping village neighbours in what was possibly the ultimate communal activity.”
For locals, it is a testament to days gone by, a means of momentarily travelling back in time. For the late summer visitors to Lewis and An Lanntair, it’s an intriguing insight into a unique way of island life now largely lost.
“Moladh Na Mòine: In Praise of Peat” is currently on display in the gallery of An Lanntair, located on Kenneth Street, Stornoway. Entry is free.
(Please note: this 2013 exhibition is now over. For more stories on the islands, see the Outer Hebrides travel page.)